Parents may have ‘a little bit of anxiety,’ but officials say most activities are safe for young, unvaccinated kids

At the Please Touch Museum Tuesday, Philadelphia and Pa. health officials discussed safety guidelines for children who can’t get the vaccine yet.

Philadelphia’s Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, Pennsylvania’s Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson, CEO and president of the Please Touch Museum Patricia Wellenbach, and Acting Secretary of Human Services for Pennsylvania Meg Snead inside the Please Touch Museum

(From left) Philadelphia’s Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, Pennsylvania’s Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson, CEO and president of the Please Touch Museum Patricia Wellenbach, and Acting Secretary of Human Services for Pennsylvania Meg Snead spoke at a press conference discussing COVID-19 guidelines for children’s safety at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia on June 8, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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There’s still one group not yet eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19: children under 12. But as Pennsylvania steadily phases out its remaining COVID-19 precautions, the state is telling parents most activities are now pretty safe for kids — even though they can’t eliminate risk entirely.

Philadelphia and state health officials met for a briefing about safety guidelines for unvaccinated children Tuesday at the city’s Please Touch Museum, which is designed for the exact young age group that still can’t get vaccines.

The museum reopened on a limited basis in April after more than a year of closure, and is now requiring masks for all visitors over the age of 2 and has implemented a rigorous cleaning schedule.

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Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia’s Acting Health Commissioner, said spaces like these are fine for kids right now, as case rates in the city remain relatively low and vaccination rates increase. She said that she’s still been hearing from parents who have “a little bit of anxiety” about indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces, and noted that the best thing they can do is try to get their kids over the age of 2 to wear masks, to wear masks themselves to set an example, and to get vaccinated.

No COVID-19 approach has to be totally perfect, she said.

“Outside is a much lower-risk scenario, and as parents, we pick our battles all the time,” Bettigole said. “If your child is happy to wear the mask, great. If you’re constantly fighting with that child and you make that parental decision that they’re going to take their mask off outside but you’re going to make them wear it inside, this is not the worst decision you’ve ever made.”

In most of Pennsylvania, masks are now optional for vaccinated people indoors, and most places don’t check vaccine status. Indoor masking is still required in Philadelphia, but city officials have pledged to phase out the mandate for vaccinated people in the coming weeks, if case levels keep dropping.

Acting State Human Services Secretary Meg Snead acknowledged that these shifting rules make it very possible that parents will find themselves in indoor spaces, like stores, where masks aren’t required and fellow patrons may not be vaccinated.

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“The best thing you can do is try to stay six feet apart from people and just socially distance as you can,” she said, adding that wearing a mask would also add an extra layer of protection for kids. “But hopefully as more and more people get vaccinated, there’s less risk.”

Nearly 56% of people in Pennsylvania now have at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. The rate is higher in Philly — about 67%. The state has said it will lift indoor mask orders for unvaccinated people when vaccine rates hit 70%, or on June 28 — whichever comes first.

The United States has set a goal of getting 70% of American residents vaccinated by July 4, as that is the number health officials have long cited as sufficient to provide herd immunity (though they’ve more recently revised the number upward). Falling vaccination rates, however, have put the likelihood of achieving even that goal in question.

Throughout the pandemic, case data has consistently shown that children rarely get seriously ill with COVID-19. Experts have compared the COVID risk level for the under-12 population to the risk for the flu — much less significant than the risk for adults.

Snead said she relates to the dilemma some parents face when going about daily life with unvaccinated children.

She said though indoor activities should generally be OK and it’s a good idea to give kids outdoor time — with visits to parks and pools and stays at summer camp — parents ultimately have to make their own decisions about what’s safe. In some cases, that may mean choosing not to do certain activities.

She noted she has young kids of her own.

“I want my girls to have an enjoyable summer,” Snead said. “But I know and they understand that COVID-19 is still spreading.”

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